Passion in the profession: earning the President’s Medal

Todd Diacon, Kent State’s senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, places the President’s Medal on Distinguished Professor of Human Evolutionary Studies C. Owen Lovejoy as Kent State President Beverly Warren watches.

Ray Padilla

When Dexter Zirkle was accepted into the Biological Anthropology Master’s Program at Kent State in 2012, he was interested in the study of human origins. An undergraduate professor highly recommended C. Owen Lovejoy, who’s been Zirkle’s advisor ever since.

“(Lovejoy) has taught me how to be a critical thinker and how to analyze new information,” said Zirkle, biomedical science and biological anthropology graduate student. “During one of his classes he told us, ‘Don’t take my word for it. Read it, look at it, come to your own conclusions.’”

Zirkle recalled an old saying while describing Lovejoy’s teaching: “Learn not for school but for life.” He said the distinguished professor prepares his students not only for science and academics, but for every aspect of their lives. He has a way of showing people what they have the potential to become and how to achieve it, Zirkle said.

 Due to his dedication, contribution and passion for teaching, Lovejoy received the President’s Medal during the One University Commencement Ceremony at Dix Stadium on May 13.

The medal — the highest honor at Kent State — recognizes those who have made successful contributions to the advancement of the university through extraordinary and one-of-a-kind service, as noted on the Kent State website.

“I was so happy to hear the news — it was so well-deserved,” Zirkle said. “We’re talking about a person who has profoundly changed the study of human evolution and on the most proximal level has been so influential to so many Kent State students over the years who have gone on to make their own great contributions to science.”

Lovejoy was born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1943 and received his B.A. in psychology from Western Reserve University (1965), his M.A. in biological anthropology from Case Institute of Technology (1967) and his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (1970).

“My original interests were in psychology,” Lovejoy said. “Anthropology seemed more interesting because, it seemed to me, more based on physical facts. Anthropology, I think, is better equipped to understand our evolution than psychology.”

Mary Ann Raghanti, associate professor and interim chair of Kent State’s Department of Anthropology, nominated Lovejoy for the President’s Medal on April 7. To be considered for the award, one person must write a letter nominating a faculty member and administrative staff.

“In addition to being a world-renowned scientist, Owen Lovejoy is a valued colleague, a generous university citizen that serves cheerfully in any capacity asked of him, and a master lecturer and teacher,” Raghanti wrote in her nomination letter.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Western Reserve, Lovejoy followed his mentor, Olaf Prufer, to Kent State. Lovejoy began to teach in 1968 as a temporary instructor and was promoted to assistant professor in 1970. Later, he was promoted to tenured professor and is now the Distinguished Professor of Human Evolutionary Studies.

As a professor, Lovejoy said the most rewarding thing about teaching is when a student understands the solution to a problem.

“In general, explaining things to people that they don’t understand or know before you provide them the explanation — teaching them how to solve puzzles,” Lovejoy said.

Lovejoy is a mentor in just about every way imaginable, Zirkle said.

“He has shared with me his tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience that is quite integrative and multidisciplinary, which is often essential to answering some of the most challenging questions that we face in science,” Zirkle said. 

His most well-known work is the reconstruction of Lucy, the fossil of a human ancestor, one of the first hominid species to walk on its hindlegs more than three million years ago. Lucy is now featured at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

“National Geographic decided to do an issue devoted to the human fossil record,” Lovejoy said. “They kind of commissioned me in a way to actually put together a skeleton — Lucy’s skeleton — (reconstructing) missing parts. I mean, Lucy is described as 40 percent complete, so we had another 60 percent to go.”

In 2007, Lovejoy was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and was appointed the director of Kent State’s new anthropology institute, a Department Service Program member of the American Anthropological Association. Anthropology combines science with humanities, biology, history and primates. It trains students to think critically and present thoughts, about what it means to be human, according to Kent State’s anthropology website.

His projects now include further research into the Ardipithecus material — published in 2009 — looking at details with the structure of the hand, pelvis and back of ardipithecus (each a separate project) and working with Raghanti as she has made discoveries about how the structure of the brain and how it relates to early human development.

“Very important are the neurotransmitters that are involved and a particular part of the brain called the basal ganglia, and I’m working with her on developing that as a subject,” Lovejoy said.

Zirkle and Lovejoy have also worked primarily on topics relating to growth and development of the Anterior Inferior Iliac Spine — a pelvic trait found in hominids but not human’s closest living relatives, the apes.

“A typical conversation with Dr. Lovejoy can go from genetics to skeletal biology, to primate social systems, neurobiology, endocrinology, fossils, forensics, anatomy and even frogs in a matter of a couple minutes,” Zirkle said. “So, although we work on a primary skeletal and evolutionary topic, we often discuss a variety of projects as well as important finds in the field, both new and old.”

 Lovejoy said he hopes the anthropology department can add more members and form a research group that focuses on new developments in neurobiology and combine that with the fossil record.

“I want people to know that Dr. Lovejoy cares,” Zirkle said. “He cares about his students, he cares about learning, teaching, he cares about science and the big questions that explain how we became human. Maybe most importantly, he cares about the truth.”

Ray Padilla is the academics reporter, contact him at [email protected].